Week 14 Matchups are here! It's the final quarter of the NFL season, and fans couldn't have much more to talk about. All but three teams are still mathematically alive in the playoff race—although some realistically have no chance—and the selection order for the 2013 draft still needs to be determined.
Despite the Seattle Seahawks' resounding victory over the New Orleans Saints Monday, the San Francisco 49ers feel like they can topple their NFC West rivals this weekend. Crucially, the 49ers are playing in Candlestick Park, so they can avoid the terrors of CenturyLink Field. They will need a lot to go in their favor if they are to win, but it's still possible so long as one specific player can stretch the Seattle defense.
In the AFC, the Denver Broncos are in a similar position to the Seahawks. They appear destined to be the No. 1 seed for the playoffs. However, there is a logjam of teams competing for a a final Wild Card berth, and the Broncos face one of those teams on Sunday. That team is the Tennessee Titans, who may have a defense that is capable of slowing down Peyton Manning.
The NFC has its own logjam of teams vying for postseason spots. It's not as muddled, but both the Philadelphia Eagles and Detroit Lions need to continue stockpiling victories if they are to claim their division crowns.
While playoff races and determining the draft order take precedence at this time of the year, there will also be massive intrigue when the Cleveland Browns and New England Patriots face off. The Patriots are comfortably ahead in the AFC East and the Browns are at the bottom of the AFC North, but it will be fascinating to watch the record-breaking Josh Gordon go against Bill Belichick and Aqib Talib.
Richard Sherman Versus Michael Crabtree
The Seahawks are coming off that outstanding display on Monday night against the New Orleans Saints.
Even though that victory all but guaranteed they will maintain home-field advantage in the playoffs, winning against a division rival is always a priority regardless of the circumstance.
When the Seahawks last faced the 49ers, they came away with a similarly convincing victory to the one they enjoyed against the Saints. That 49ers team isn't dramatically different from the one that beat the St. Louis Rams last week, but playing at home against the Seahawks should at the very least make this game competitive.
A lot has to go in the 49ers' favor if they are to win this game.
Defensively, they should feel that that they can limit Russell Wilson and Marshawn Lynch because they are so familiar with both players at this point. The real challenge is going to take place on the other side of the ball.
With Walter Thurmond and Brandon Browner unavailable, the Seahawks turned to Byron Maxwell as their second starting cornerback across from Richard Sherman. On the broadcast, it appeared that Maxwell stood up to the test of covering the Saints' receivers with no issues, but a closer look at the All-22 revealed how little he was really asked to do.
Much of this game saw the Seahawks play with a big lead so they could overcommit to the pass and take the pressure off of their cornerbacks. Early on in the game, they didn't have that luxury, but they still took the pressure off of one of their cornerbacks. That pressure had to go somewhere, and on more than one occasion it was shifted onto Sherman.
On the Saints' first third down of the game, the Seahawks asked Sherman to cover Robert Meachem with no real help. Typically, the Seahawks anchor their coverage off of Earl Thomas and crowd the line of scrimmage because of that.
On passing downs early in this game, they were anchoring coverage off of Sherman to crowd the other side of the field, where Maxwell was.
Although it initially looks like Kam Chancellor is playing a deep zone coverage and is in a position to aid Sherman, he is only there because his assignment initially blocks in the play. Regardless of that, Chancellor's attention is ultimately drawn to Jimmy Graham, who runs a post route while Meachem takes Sherman down the sideline.
Chancellor is late to react to the tight end breaking into the flat who was initially blocking. However, Drew Brees is looking to the other side of the field initially, so he never sees the opportunity.
Even if he saw the pass, it's not certain that the tight end would have been able to get to the first-down marker before Chancellor.
When Brees began his throwing motion, Chancellor was still too close to Graham for him to find his favorite target over the middle of the field. This left him with just one option.
Sherman actually lets Meachem get away from him for a short moment as the cornerback looks back to the football. However, it's possible that he was looking to bait Brees into throwing the ball down the field. Before Meachem could get too far away from him, Sherman had accelerated so that he was back on the receiver's shoulder.
Brees does gives his receiver a chance with a perfect pass, but Sherman's coverage is too physical for Meachem to bring the ball in.
The play is a testament to Sherman's physical talents; he had the ability to recover his position and the size and strength to contest the catch even as Meachem attacked the football.
Although Sherman doesn't follow receivers around the field throughout every game he plays, this type of strategy forces teams to put their best receiver against him if they want to give their best weapon room to work with.
For the 49ers, their best receiving weapon is Michael Crabtree.
Crabtree returned from a torn Achilles to make his first appearance of the season last week. The 26-year-old receiver had just two receptions, but he finished the game with 68 yards and looked much quicker than expected. Although he didn't have the long speed or stamina to take his 60-yard reception to the end zone, he doesn't need straight-line speed to be effective.
At his peak last season, Crabtree's greatest impact on the field came from his ability with the ball in his hands. He primarily worked underneath routes that allowed him to catch the ball on the move before making defenders miss in space.
If the Seahawks take away all of the space to one side of the field, he won't have any chance to be effective unless he moves to the other side and beats Sherman.
Unbalanced offenses set themselves up to fail against the Seahawks. The 49ers need an effective passing attack, and their best hope of that comes with even more contributions from Crabtree.
Jared Cook Versus Tyrann Mathieu
When these sides met in Week 1, Cook had a huge game, but Mathieu stole a touchdown from him with an outstanding forced fumble.
Since then, Cook's season has fallen off, while Mathieu's has gone from strength to strength for the most part. Mathieu was victimised somewhat by the Philadelphia Eagles' tight ends last week though, so the Cardinals may be hoping to isolate him and Cook this week.
Mike Wallace Versus Ike Taylor
The Pittsburgh Steelers will know everything they need to know about Wallace, but that won't change the fact that their coverage in the secondary has been terrible this season. Taylor will likely be tasked with following Wallace. Even though the veteran cornerback had exceptional speed when he was younger, it's unlikely that he can handle Wallace without significant help from teammates.
Andre Johnson Versus the Jacksonville Jaguars Secondary
Johnson doesn't have the same physical talent as Josh Gordon at this stage of his career, but he is a much more refined wide receiver. Given the opportunities, he could tear the Jaguars' secondary apart in a similar fashion to Gordon. What Gordon did last week wasn't one cornerback's fault. He beat multiple defenders, and the Jaguars broke down as a team.
T.Y. Hilton Versus Terence Newman
Newman is an excellent cornerback, but he is very close to the end of his career and doesn't have the speed to stick with Hilton in a straight-line race. Newman will likely need help to contain Hilton, but the Indianapolis Colts receiver hasn't been overly impressive this season. Hilton needs to have a big game if the Colts are going to keep their season on track for the playoffs.
Josh Gordon Versus Aqib Talib (and Bill Belichick)
Against the Jacksonville Jaguars last week, Browns wide receiver Gordon had 10 receptions for 261 yards. The week before, against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Gordon had 237 yards on 14 receptions. Gordon isn't just enjoying an incredible stretch, he's showing off all of the physical talent that made the Browns select him in the supplemental draft before last season.
He's also proving that he is not just the focal point of the Browns' passing attack, but the foundation and the walls of it too.
Right now, Gordon appears to be an unstoppable force, reminiscent of Randy Moss in his prime. Bill Belichick knows all about the kind of damage a receiver like that can do, so he will likely focus on taking Gordon out of the game. Regardless of who starts at quarterback for the Browns, stopping Gordon will be the primary objective.
That objective may not be as tough as it seems.
There is no doubt that Gordon is an outstanding talent, but his yardage totals over the past two weeks have been bloated for various reasons. Against the Steelers, he racked up 148 yards in the fourth quarter when the result was already decided. Against the Jaguars, he was able to easily brush past defensive backs who were too small and slow to match up with him.
Patriots cornerback Talib isn't an elite defender, but he is a strong defender who can play very physical coverage at the catch point. This makes him a very good matchup for Gordon, especially if Belichick puts him in positions to succeed with safety help.
Earlier this season, Talib played an impressive game against Saints tight end Jimmy Graham. The veteran cornerback used his strength and length to battle the ball away from Graham while often receiving help from those around him.
Gordon is going to be a different prospect to handle, because he is more likely to attack the deeper section of the field.
Gordon's greatest weakness is his inability to create separation with route running. What he lacks in that area is often what costs him against the better cornerbacks in the NFL.
He hasn't really faced a top cornerback. The Cincinnati Bengals don't move their cornerbacks around, so Leon Hall didn't follow him in Week 4. Stephon Gilmore was absent with an injury when he faced the Buffalo Bills in Week 5. Lardarius Webb of the Baltimore Ravens has been forced to play a huge amount of zone coverage this year, so he hasn't focused on any single receiver for four quarters.
Clearly Gordon's most impressive game of the season came against the Kansas City Chiefs and their excellent cornerbacks in Week 8.
This is the first week where Gordon will face off against a strong cornerback and a coach who will adjust his game plan to specifically stop him. The results should be fascinating even in spite of the Browns' issues at the quarterback position. Gordon has made the other poor quarterbacks on the Browns' roster more productive with his play, but that wasn't in this tough situation.
Rashad Jennings Versus the New York Jets' Defensive Line
Jennings' ability to consistently take advantage of the opportunities that come his way would be huge against a stingy Jets front.
Washington's Receiving Corps Versus the Kansas City Chiefs Secondary
Although Washington could point to the mistake made late in the game by the officials as a reason for its loss against the New York Giants last week, it wasn't the main reason for the loss. Washington's receivers didn't make enough plays, especially late in the game when opportunities arose. Against a strong Chiefs defense this week, they can't afford to repeat their mistakes.
The Detroit Lions' Defensive Line Versus Nick Foles
Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Foles has had an incredible run since taking over as the starter for Michael Vick. He has yet to throw an interception and has 19 touchdown passes.
However, it's hard to give Foles a huge amount of credit for that run considering he could easily have thrown four interceptions last week.
Although the Eagles beat the Cardinals eventually, they largely did it because of the Cardinals' mistakes on offense. Carson Palmer started the game out with a fumble deep in his own territory that gave the Eagles their first touchdown. Then he missed a wide-open Michael Floyd for a touchdown instead throwing the ball to an Eagles defender.
That head start proved too much for the Cardinals to recover from, but Foles gave them every opportunity.
His ball placement was consistently off during the game, but his first big mistake was a pass he forced downfield to DeSean Jackson late in the second quarter. Patrick Peterson was covering Jackson and he should have had an interception.
In the second half, Foles forced a pass down the sideline that should have been intercepted by Tyrann Mathieu. The ball was slightly overthrown, forcing wide receiver Riley Cooper to stretch to tip the ball away.
Another overthrown pass to a crossing route was nearly intercepted before Foles had a terrible decision negated for a very questionable defensive holding penalty late in the fourth quarter.
Pressure forced that final near-interception. The Cardinals have a very talented defense that was able to contain the Eagles offense for the most part. Field position, penalties and mismatches in the secondary allowed the Eagles to continue to score points and negated the impact of the defensive line.
If the Detroit Lions offense can control the ball better and put more pressure on the Eagles offense to earn the points they do score, then their defensive line could have a much bigger day than the Cardinals had.
Ndamukong Suh, Nick Fairley, Ziggy Ansah and the rest of the rotation up front have the ability to take over a football game with their pass rush or shut down any running game when fully focused on the task. The Eagles like to run a balanced offense, so that will test the discipline of the Lions defense as a whole and the line in particular.
But if they can get to Foles early and make him even more uncomfortable, then his flaws could affect the rest of the offense.
Adrian Peterson Versus the Baltimore Ravens' Defensive Front
Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell didn't have huge numbers against the Ravens on Thanksgiving, but he did make many impressive plays.
Even though Bell has been a very impressive back this season, he is still nowhere near the talent of Peterson. If Peterson can have a big game, then the Minnesota Vikings will feel that they can steal a victory from the relatively unimpressive Ravens.
Eddie Lacy Versus Matt Ryan
According to Football Outsiders, the Atlanta Falcons have the second-worst defense in the NFL right now. The Green Bay Packers have the third-worst. This game comes down to whose offense can show up. That means it's up to Ryan to carry the passing attack for the Falcons or Lacy to carry the rushing game for the Packers.
Stephon Gilmore Versus Vincent Jackson
If the Buffalo Bills can take Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Vincent Jackson away from quarterback Mike Glennon, that will go very far toward helping them get a victory on the road. Jackson had just three receptions last week, but those three went for 75 yards.
Gilmore was outstanding in covering No. 1 receivers as a rookie, but he has never regained that ability after missing the start of the season through injury.
Jurrell Casey Versus Peyton Manning
Peyton Manning has consistently negated outside pressure this season. Against the Baltimore Ravens in Week 1, he was sacked twice by Elvis Dumervil and Terrell Suggs, but the outside linebackers routinely beat those trying to block them during the game.
During the Denver Broncos' first matchup against the Kansas City Chiefs, neither Justin Houston nor Tamba Hali sacked Manning despite getting the better of the Broncos' tackles.
What Manning does to adjust to outside pressure is simply masterful, but dealing with interior pressure is much more difficult for even the elite quarterbacks. The interior of Manning's line appears to be better than the edges, but they have a very tough task this weekend against the Tennessee Titans.
Titans defensive tackle Jurrell Casey has nine sacks already this year. He had two last week against the Indianapolis Colts to go along with six tackles. Casey has the ability to take over any football game, and he may need to do that this week with Ryan Fitzpatrick starting for the Titans in Jake Locker's place.
Casey has incredible athleticism. He was consistently penetrating the pocket against the Colts because of his speed combined with the leverage that he can get beneath offensive linemen.
For one of his sacks, he stunted around the other defensive tackle before tracking Luck down deep behind the line of scrimmage. For the other, he pushed his way past the guard before working around the offensive tackle and knocking the ball free from Luck from behind.
Casey's athleticism is such that his defensive coordinator even likes to drop him into coverage on occasion.
Hopefully, defensive coordinator Jerry Gray doesn't look to drop Casey into coverage this weekend. He is needed rushing the passer and Manning will quickly recognize where he is on the field if that happens. What really makes this matchup for Casey intriguing is the coverage on the back end for the Titans.
Manning gets rid of the ball exceptionally quickly, so quickly, in fact, that the Titans won't be able to run stunts or delayed pass rushes to get to him. However, with aggressive, high-quality coverage on the outside, the Titans could get consistent pressure on Manning if Casey is at his best.
The Titans may not have the offense to score with the Broncos, but they definitely have the potential to disrupt Manning if a few key players can lead the way.
Justin Tuck Versus Jeromey Clary
Both Tuck and teammate Jason Pierre-Paul have had very poor seasons. Pierre-Paul has an injury excuse, while Tuck is seemingly feeling the effects of his age, even though he is not that old.
Against Washington last week, Tuck proved that he can still have a huge impact on a game. He had multiple sacks of Robert Griffin III.
Against the San Diego Chargers' right tackle Clary, he has another very good opportunity to make a big impact.
Cam Newton Versus Rob Ryan
The Saints are going to be determined to blow away the Carolina Panthers this week after suffering an embarrassing loss to Seattle on Monday night.
In spite of their talent on the defensive line, it's unlikely that the Panthers can contain the Saints offense in New Orleans. That puts more pressure on Newton and the offense to not only score points, but sustain long drives to try to prevent the Saints offense from building a head of steam.
Sean Lee Versus Josh McCown
Jay Cutler looks set to miss out again this week as the Chicago Bears host the Dallas Cowboys on Monday Night Football. Regardless of who is at quarterback for the Bears, they should be able to make plays because of their mismatch receivers on the outside.
However, middle linebacker Lee is returning to the field, which adds to the potential for turnovers when the Bears look to attack the middle of the field.
This should be a close game, so any turnovers could prove to be massive.
Cian Fahey is the Film Room writer for Football Outsiders, a columnist for Football Guys and a Featured Columnist at Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @Cianaf